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18 Sep 2018

From Lochboisdale to Boisdale

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie (Canna House Archivist)
From Lochboisdale Hotel, South Uist to Boisdale Station, Nova Scotia
John and Margaret Campbell of Canna collected hundreds of Gaelic songs on both sides of the Atlantic, many of which will feature at this year’s National Mòd. Here we look more closely at just one of them: ‘Diuram’.
Dunoon Mòd programme, 1950
Dunoon Mòd programme, 1950

Autumn in Scotland is the time when the voice of the Gael is heard strongest, with the Royal National Mòd held every October in a different part of Scotland. Many thousands of people come together for ten days to hear Gaelic poetry, piping, folk groups, choirs and, above all, Gaelic song. Many of the songs heard will have been collected and recorded by folklorists John Lorne Campbell and his wife, the photographer Margaret Fay Shaw. These collections now live in Canna House on the Isle of Canna, but the Campbells’ work is still very much part of the contemporary Gaelic world.

As well as collecting in the Outer Hebrides, John and Margaret travelled extensively in North America, recording songs and stories, mainly in 1937 in Cape Breton. They captured voices of a people long gone, and not only Gaelic voices. Listen here to one of the last recordings of the Mi’kmaq First Nation people singing one of their own songs.

This article will take a closer look at just one of the songs which will no doubt be heard at this year’s Mòd in Dunoon. Collected by Margaret and John both in South Uist and Nova Scotia, in 1933 and 1937 respectively, this song called ‘Diuram’ literally travelled from Lochboisdale to Boisdale. How did this happen, and did it change as it crossed the ocean? Listen to the clips of different versions of the song recorded by John and see images of the contributors captured on celluloid by Margaret, all now held in the Canna archives.

Cape Breton Island
Cape Breton Island – map by Klaus M. CC-BY-SA-2.5.

The Clearances had a major impact on the movement of a culture from the Western Isles to North America, particularly to Nova Scotia. This greatly increased after the 1812 war between the UK and the US – the American route was effectively closed to emigrants so they went to Canada instead. In Cape Breton, settlers from Barra concentrated around the Barra Strait in the Bras d’Or, while South Uist people went mainly to Grand Mira and the Boisdale and East Bay areas. North Uist settlers went to Catalone, Gabarus and Mira, while Harris folk went to Grand River, Framboise and St Anns.

There are many different versions of the songs recorded over the years, both by the Campbells and other collectors. However, few have travelled so far and yet retained their lyrical and melodic integrity as the lullaby ‘Diuram’. It’s interesting to see how a song can change as it crosses the years and the ocean, carrying traditions with it from one people to another, yet remaining recognisably the same.

Margaret Fay Shaw’s transcription of ‘Diuram’, 1933
Margaret Fay Shaw’s transcription of ‘Diuram’, 1933

This is the version collected by Margaret Fay Shaw in 1933 from Peigi Nill (Mrs John Currie) in North Glendale, South Lochboisdale. Margaret notes in her book Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist that the meaning of the word diuram is unknown but is likely a pet name for a baby or a lamb. I’ve recently found a Jewish lullaby with a similar name, ‘Durme Durme’ – perhaps there’s a connection somewhere.

‘Diuram’ was initially recorded by Margaret as ‘t-Chiuram’. The Uist Gaelic speaker, then and now, has a very soft vocalisation and the harder ‘D’ will be pronounced as a ‘ch’. This song was transcribed by Margaret before she had a completely firm handle on Gaelic vocabulary and pronunciation. Margaret realised that she had to embrace the language as well as the culture in order to reach a stage where her transcription would be recognised as authentic and accurate.

Here is Peigi Nill singing ‘Diuram’, recorded in 1950 in Lochboisdale. Unfortunately, we don’t have a recording of her singing it in 1933 as this was before Margaret met John and his recording equipment!

Peigi and Margaret’s version, tune wise, is a fairly simple structure, set in the key of D major and in simple ¾ time. It follows the common Gaelic style of the chorus and verse having practically the same melody, with minor differences. The whole song has only two instances of a complex or dotted rhythm, and the range is maintained within an octave. Margaret’s version comprises the chorus and only two verses. The bàrdachd (lyrics/poetry), although sung liltingly as a lullaby, has the feel of a love song or a song of praise for a fine young warrior.

‘Tis Diuram, son of John, son of Lachlan, son of Roderick, whose hair grew in ringlets, smoothly about his shoulders. When I see you coming my heart rises For Diuram, son of John, son of Lachlan, son of Roderic. I spent seven years, walking and searching for the coming of MacRury of the weapons.’

John Lorne Campbell recording, Lake Ainslie, Cape Breton, 1937
John Lorne Campbell recording, Lake Ainslie, Cape Breton, 1937

John collected ‘Diuram’ in Antigonish County, Nova Scotia on 20 October 1937, from the well-known singer and piper Angus ‘Ridge’ Macdonald. John noted the lyrics down but the melody was notated by Seumas Ennis, an Irish musician and folklore collector who did extensive work for the Irish Folklore Commission in the mid-20th century. It’s not clear why John didn’t ask Margaret to notate the songs since she was present on that trip. John knew that his own musical skills were not good enough to notate the songs accurately; perhaps he relied on Seumas Ennis who had more extensive Gaelic language skills than those possessed at the time by Margaret.

Here is John’s transcription in his notebook from that day – note the wee cat cartoons at the top. The cats were always interrupting the Campbells’ work!

John Campbell’s notes on ‘Diuram’
John Campbell’s notes on ‘Diuram’

The first difference to be noted is in the verses. Margaret’s are quite distinct from John’s but the structure of the lines is the same and the lyrics can equally well be sung to the tune of Margaret’s version.

Musically speaking, this structure is also simple. It’s set in simple ¾ time, a popular time signature for lullabies due to its gentle, waltz-like rhythm, but this version is set in the key of G. It has a simple melody, with the addition of a few more dotted rhythms than in the Uist version. The range is also greater, almost two octaves. The melody is almost the same in the chorus and the verse, unlike the Uist version. The chorus here says ‘O Diuram’ rather than ‘Se Diuram’ in the Uist version.

If the two versions were to be sung back to back, they would fit together in terms of structure, dynamics and phrasing. As a singer, I have tried it. There’s an undeniable likeness, both lyrically and musically, between the two versions, although John’s version seems to be more of a lullaby than a hero worship song. It brings to mind a mother singing of her fine young son, rather than a lover as in the Uist version.

We can definitely see that one song is inevitably of the other, beautifully mutated and adapted to different voices over the years. It has moved from being a lullaby most probably sung by a woman, to a song sung more generally by men, on the other side of the ocean.

John Lorne Campbell at Glenbard Cemetery, 1937
John Lorne Campbell at Glenbard Cemetery, 1937. This was the place of rest for many Scots emigrants, including the great Tiree Bàrd John Maclean.

Language changes when removed from its community roots and immersed in a new environment. These songs show us how particular words change, absorb local character and change meaning and spelling. From a historical point of view, the passage of time will inevitably add colour and information to a story, perhaps political, perhaps social. From a musical point of view, when freed from local, social or political tradition, songs can absorb other influences and styles. John and Margaret Campbell collected, on both sides of the world, some of Gaelic culture’s most beautiful songs. While at first glance they appear to be quite simple songs, when analysed to even a rudimentary level, they’re much more complex and sophisticated than we first imagine.

We can learn a lot from examining the ways people preserved our heritage and culture. Separated by oceans with no social media to rely on, the songs still retain the story, the meaning and the personality of the people who made them in the first place.

The Campbells’ legacy in Canna House, including this lullaby, is testament to the respect and vision they possessed for their own adopted heritage and culture.

John and Margaret Campbell, Castle Bay, Nova Scotia 1937
John and Margaret Campbell, Castle Bay, Nova Scotia 1937

We look forward to hearing many of the songs and stories collected by the Campbells at the Mòd this year!

Siuthadaibh ... on you go!

All images and audio copyright of the Canna Archives, National Trust for Scotland

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